It was talked about at the end of last season, before this season began, and has been at the front of just about every Toronto Raptors fan’s mind through every game played so far in the 2017-18 campaign: the team’s so-called “culture change.”
Following Tuesday night’s alarmingly close 119-114 win over the hapless Chicago Bulls, the Raptors find themselves with a 6-4 record— not outstanding, but respectable.
After 10 games played we now have a better sense of what this Raptors team is, and can better assess if an actual “culture change” is in effect.
A quick look with the eye test would certainly suggest so. This team appears to be making a more concerted effort to take as many three-pointers as possible (so much so that Jonas Valanciunas made a three Tuesday) and move the ball around without getting into as many isolation sets as last season.
Mission accomplished, right?
Not so fast. Yes, the Raptors are taking more threes, but that doesn’t mean much when you’re second last in three-point field goal percentage, as they are right now, and the extra passes can be insignificant if they come at the expense of actually scoring the ball.
Toronto finds itself caught in an interesting conundrum. On the one hand, it’s admirable to try to change the identity toward a proven winning formula in today’s NBA, but on the other it remains to be seen if this team truly has the personnel to do so.
DeMar DeRozan is at his best when he can operate and create in the mid-range area, the spot on the floor you’re never supposed to shoot from according to analytic theory. Additionally, the club lacks true three-point marksmen— C.J. Miles and Kyle Lowry (if he ever finds his shot again) are the only real sharpshooters from deep on this team. The rest are more or less, slashers who happen to hit threes when hot, like Serge Ibaka, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet.
The team and its coaching staff could be facing a decision on whether they’re going to continue to push forward with this new style of play amid the imperfect roster fit, or if they should revert back to what worked for them before.
Both have their pros and cons, so let’s take a look at them before coming to a conclusion. (Note: numbers in brackets denote league ranking)
Raptors this season
|3PA||3P%||APG||FTA||Offensive Rating||Net Rating|
|30.7 (11)||32.2 (29)||21.9 (15)||24.9 (10)||107.9 (6)||5.2 (4)|
|3PA||3P%||APG||FTA||Offensive Rating||Net Rating|
|24.3 (22)||36.3 (13)||18.5 (30)||24.7 (6)||109.8 (6)||4.9 (4)|
Take a look at the tables above. These numbers illustrate some of the key analytically-approved things you want a team to be doing: shooting threes, getting to the free-throw line and racking up assists.
From that perspective, the Raptors are looking pretty good. The three attempts are way up, they’re now at league average for assists, they continue to get to the line at a good rate, and overall they haven’t taken much of a hit offensively— despite the awful three-point percentage.
Furthermore, they continue to be deadly getting to the rack and finishing those all-important layups as, coming into Tuesday night’s game, they were averaging 60.8 plays per game that result in a drive to the hole, resulting in 29.4 points per game off them (both league-bests). Ten games is a short sample size, but it’s a definite improvement over their league-leading 34.4 drive plays and 24.2 drive points per game they averaged last season.
From an overall growth and development standpoint of the team, the Raptors’ new play style definitely appears to be working. However, when taken from the perspective of the team’s two best— and most important— players, it’s not all that rosy.
As mentioned, DeRozan is most effective when he can dominate the ball in isolation situations. To a lesser extent, the same can be said for his fellow all-star backcourt partner Kyle Lowry. Last season Toronto averaged approximately nine isolation possessions per game, entering Tuesday night, however, they’ve managed to drop that number to about 7.8 per contest. Great, right?
The Dallas Mavericks and, more interestingly, the Houston Rockets were leading the league in isolation possessions per game with about 12.6 heading into Tuesday. This is significant because the Rockets are hailed as one of the analytic innovators of the NBA—their GM Daryl Morey helped co-found the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, after all. Last season the Cleveland Cavaliers led the league in isolation possessions with an average of 12.8 per game.
If you’re the Raptors, and you see this information, doesn’t this trigger some warning bells? It’s fine to want to move the ball more— and they should— but not if it comes at the expense of their best players. Clearly Houston isn’t looking to get the ball out of James Harden’s hands, and Toronto shouldn’t be doing that to DeRozan and Lowry either.
Just look at the pair’s stat lines from this season compared to last:
DeRozan hasn’t seen too much of a drop off in production, other than his scoring, but the same can’t be said of Lowry, who has been terrible this season. Now notice their usage rate (an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor) and how much it’s dipped from last season to this one.
This can help explain a little why Lowry’s struggled so much and a lot why DeRozan’s scoring is down. Neither are being allowed to operate with the ball as much as they probably should.
So, while it’s a good thing the Raptors are changing the way they play, for the moment it’s still probably hurting the team, overall, as they try to work out the kinks. Not only are they missing their shots, but it could be holding their two franchise cornerstones back from doing what they do best.